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Michael Jeffords: The Shawnee National Forest is changing

  • Michael Jeffords

    Michael Jeffords

Commentary by Michael Jeffords
updated: 8/1/2022 5:27 PM

I am 72 years old. I've been exploring the Shawnee National Forest since I was 11. Simple math! I grew up on the southern edge of the Shawnee, and a friend and I (older and with a 1949 Chevy) spent long days roaming the hills and valleys of this wild landscape.

I remember a long hike past Massac Tower (now gone) and marveling at the spectacular mushroom displays cascading down the moist hillsides. I was frustrated that I didn't have the capability to capture this scene -- they were too pretty to collect. I remember a large, blue beech tree that captured my attention -- as a 12-year-old I envied its muscular physique. Later, as my interest in biology and nature focused on entomology, the Shawnee provided a limitless landscape populated by insects that I had only seen in my "Golden Guide to Insects": elephant stag beetles, unicorn beetles, fiery caterpillar hunters and butterflies, oh so many species of butterflies.

Today, I'm a retired Ph.D. entomologist with 40 years of scientific experience as a field biologist, writer and photographer. That 11-year-old from so long ago was no less a naturalist than I am today ... only one with a limited knowledge base. Since I have been regularly exploring and documenting the biodiversity of the Shawnee as a scientist since the 1970s, I feel I can speak with some authority that the Shawnee has changed.

While notable to many is the decrease in the spring dogwood bloom, I want to call attention to some of the less obvious changes that I've noted. There is not enough space to share all I've observed, but there is a hidden world of biological phenomena waiting for those who look.

Did you know that the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) populations have declined in an "ever-damping sine wave?" A damped sine wave is the equivalent of a heart patient "flatlining," a scary prospect. A notable example is the rare and local Ozark Checkerspot butterfly, a denizen of the sandstone and limestone glades of the Shawnee. Its unique life cycle has a "weak spot or choke point" that is susceptible to current fire management regimes.

Did you know that a species of crane fly that specializes on a madicolous landscape (a habitat where water flows over bare rock) has been adversely impacted by multiuse trails and careless road maintenance? Did you know the leaf litter or duff layer of the Shawnee is under siege because of the intense burning regime and other disturbances such as logging? This layer is home to innumerable species of organisms that maintain the overall viability of the soil -- a key to forest health.

As E.O. Wilson said, "They are the little things that run the world." Did you know the large beetles that I collected as a youth are no longer abundant as their larvae require large quantities of downed, punky wood to complete their multiyear life cycles? I could go on and on, but you get the message: A forest is more than just the trees and the other plants. It is an incredibly complex ecosystem of interconnected species, each adapted for life in its own way.

As John Muir wrote, "When you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it connected to everything else in the universe."

Yes, disturbances like fire and windstorm blowdowns have been and are a natural part of the forest. But the degree to which this occurs has a profound impact on the overall health and viability of the ecosystem. When we "manage" complex ecosystems with simplistic, often expedient procedures that do not mimic natural regimes, we simplify the ecosystem and reduce its overall biodiversity and stability. There are ways to manage forests appropriately based on the overall distribution patterns of organisms.

To conclude, few who have not spent significant time in the Shawnee would decry the loss of insect species due to a phenomenon called "generational amnesia," i.e., everyone's baseline data starts from their first observation. I, too, have generational amnesia, it's just that mine started over 60 years ago.

Note: I'm always available for questions and discussion ( Just ask.

• Jeffords is the retired education/outreach director for the Illinois Natural History Survey.

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